Ayesha asked: I have 3 young learners and a 4 month baby. I have developed a learning program for my older girls 7 and 5 1/2, yet my 4 year old always seems to be left out. How can I incorporate her into the program so that she benefits from the day and feels apart of the family?
How do you homeschool with younger children? Because the needs of each stage when they are young are so different, where does homeschooling fit in? How do you work with the older children when the younger children need me, too? I often hear questions such as these from new homeschoolers of school-aged children who also have one or more under-aged children in the mix. Of course, the reason these questions are so prevalent amongst the newly initiated is most likely from the stereotyped perception of the sterile classroom environment that they believe must prevail in their homeschool. However, rest assured to those of you who are worrying about this very issue. The answer may be found at the heart of another often quoted statement I hear from experienced homeschoolers: “my child has been homeschooled since birth.”
Just like before you had older children of school age, you were including the younger ones in their life learning activities such as learning to walk, talk, socialize, imitate, and all other manner of amazing things with only minor facilitating on your part. The littles may have been involved in day-to-day activities as well such as cooking, gardening, sewing, repairing, and cleaning alongside mother or father. Inclusion also probably extended to community interactions such as traveling along to the grocery store, post office, museum, or library, where age appropriate and interesting experiences were found. What does my bringing all of these pre-kindergarten activities up have to do with the original question at hand? I found that by continuing to adopt this same premise with my younger children, integration of my littles blended harmoniously with homeschooling.
There are some things that we parents need to be ready and willing to embrace by shifting our pre-conditioned thinking in order to continue to encourage learning to happen alongside each other. First, one needs to have meaningful homeschool-style materials that duplicate the purpose of any homeschool supplies you would use with your older children. For instance, if you use manipulative materials, you would want to have a supply of manipulatives appropriate for your young child. Why? Young children are not easily appeased with an age-appropriate activity given to them to distract them from an interesting looking math lesson. It is natural to want to explore and emulate what older siblings are up to, so you either dole out some of what you are using to the child or you provide a similarly appealing and “real” manipulative such as a box of beads or buttons. This is also true of the toddler set . . . curiosity over those colored cubes or chips have greater appeal than that same boring baby toy.
Second, it is better to prioritize the process than focus too much on a desired product. Self-discovery through exploration has its own rewards and is at the heart of joyful learning. There are ways to present the learning opportunity that will appeal to a young person’s autonomy such as a Montessori-type tray, shelves, or buckets that includes all the interesting tools and materials to peak their interest. By creating independent exploration, this means that one must be ready and willing to deal with the M-E-S-S. It helps to have a large, clear area in which to do this work so that items will not roll under the tables, chairs, etc. This will keep the mess centralized and make it more accessible for little hands to sweep, scoop and help put away. Personally, I have always found that since the older children are working seriously with the materials, the young children instinctively imitate the practice and keep their work within a reasonable boundary. As it pertains to toddlers, however, do not be surprised if periodically a more interesting idea for the material is created, such as the mathematical calculation on how far beans can be scattered . . . without the math . . . but with lots of sensory pleasure! Remind yourself to look at learning through their perspective!
The third shift has to do with retaining the joy of learning over the worry of temporal concerns. One must realize that materials will become broken, lost, torn, and/or generally ruined for future use. When left to independently work with their materials, being young circumvents complete perfection in this area. You must consider the expense of replacement and ease of repair, yet ultimately weigh these factors with the joy and satisfaction of accomplishment in your child’s eye.
So, now you, the parent, are ready to involve your younger set in the home learning environment. How do you begin? Along with the above-mentioned perspective shift, imagination and creativity are your resources. I have both responded to my child’s initiative as well as created work areas that previous interests have proven meaningful.
Some ideas in the manipulative department is using hundreds boards and colored chips or a pegboard or an abacus or macaroni sticks (10 noodles glued to a popscicle stick) to play around with math concepts. There are also tangrams, geoboards, pentominoes, dominoes, and pattern blocks that often come with colored card ideas. Sensory bucket play with rice, beans, water, or sand are easy to assemble and either hide items to match up or sort, pour, measure, and comparing activities can be created. All the various blocks (Duplos, Legos, Unifix cubes, ABC blocks, etc.) have potential for exploration, including creating pictures of various designs to be copied. I have used traditional playing cards such as Old Maid, Slap Jack, and War as well as a stash of travel games like Crocodile Dentist and Perfection to peak interests. Board games such as Battleship, Mouse Trap, Cootie Bug, and Ants in the Pants are fun to play alone and explore.
I have a large collection of pictorial-based books such as Eyewitness books, picture dictionaries, atlases, etc., to offer as a way to do “book work”. An assortment of coloring books, simple and interactive workbooks, water painting books, tracing books, and stencils with paper and pencil meet the need to “write”. Magna Doodle boards, etch-a-sketch, LiteBrite, and Spirograph have been used successfully by my littles. Flannel board, picture cards, and small photo albums (like grandparents carry around) can create oral story starters and pretend play. Using appropriate activities and ideas pulled from pre-made or form-based lapbooks, book-making how-tos, and unit studies are another great resource.
Five years of age is an arbitrarily prescribed age established by the public school institution denoting the commencement of education. This does not preclude the fact that toddlers and young children are already learning right along with everyone else. Parents, and especially those of us who choose to homeschool, should fully respect that play and exploration is a young child’s work. Encourage your young children to be fully involved with your activities using real materials so they can learn together with the family at their own levels. Who knows, one day, you may look back and declare, “There is no such thing as schooling. We’ve been living and learning together since birth!”